America is a nation of immigrants. We owe much of our country's development to immigrants in history, and our culture continues to deepen in complexity and richness as more people migrate to America’s shores.
In 2015, The US was home to 46,630,000 immigrants. In 2015, migrants from Mexico, China, India, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Vietnam, El Salvador, Cuba, and South Korea all numbered in the millions.
Needless to say, in addition to their cultural contributions, these populations bring a tremendous amount of innovation, creative power, and labor force to the American economy.
Immigrants create jobs. While they represent only around 12 percent of the national population, the make up 16.7 percent of American entrepreneurs. That means immigrants in history have been more likely than non-immigrant Americans to start small businesses.
Immigrants in history built the railroads, developed Chicago style pizza, and gave birth to Steve Jobs (See? Immigrants really do create Jobs!).
American history has changed course again and again because of immigrants in history. Important generals, politicians, slaves, filmmakers, poets, musicians, business people and philanthropists were born on foreign soil. Let’s take a look at some of the most important and impactive American immigrants in history.
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The African Slaves
America was built on the backs of slave laborers, most of them forced to emigrate from Africa. The burden they carried, and their contributions to American industry and culture, cannot be overstated. From before the birth of the nation until President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1873, slavery was a legally sanctioned institution.
Though the African American struggle continues in the US, the debt that the American economic system owes to their labor is yet unpaid. The slaves of early America, collectively, are perhaps the greatest and most important immigrants in history. Their suffering laid the groundwork for the success of the following immigrants.
Signer of the Declaration of Independence and the face of the ten dollar bill, Hamilton was the orphan of a Franco-British mother and her Scottish boyfriend on the Caribbean island of Nevis, a British colony.
Technically, all of the founding fathers were born in the British colonies, because even those who were born in America were born there before America existed. But Hamilton is among the true immigrants in history because he grew up in a place that never was or would be a part of the USA.
Despite being an orphan, Hamilton enjoyed the support of a wealthy network backers. They sent him to Columbia University (then King’s College) to get educated and rich.
Eventually, he got involved in the Revolutionary War, playing senior aide to George Washington as he lead the American side. He became the nation’s first Secretary of Treasury.
As one of the principle founders of the nation, Alexander Hamilton takes the forefront of important immigrants in history. He’s also proof that you can achieve Broadway fame, even if you’re not around to see it.
Einstein is one of the most recognizable immigrants in history. The famed theoretical physicist, who was a German born professor at the Berlin Academy of Sciences, only became a U.S. citizen after his trip to America took a surprise turn. While he was visiting, Hitler took office back in his home country.
Einstein sensibly decided that Germany was no longer the place for him. After some country-hopping, he returned to the States as a refugee and became a citizen in 1940.
You may know Einstein’s work from his famed theory of relativity, which gave Newtonian physics a much needed overhaul. He also penned the iconic equation E=mc², describing that the energy contained in any object is its mass multiplied by the speed of light squared.
As one of the most important immigrants in history, however, Einstein’s greatest claim to fame would be his role as Facebook’s favorite target of mis-attributed quotes.
Successful immigrants in history don't always make the press, but Pulitzer literally made the press. The founder of two newspapers, the Pulitzer Prize and the Columbia University School of Journalism was himself Hungarian-born.
He came to America looking for work at the age of 17, after his family went bankrupt. Pulitzer published newspapers in St. Louis, and later New York, where he rivaled William Randolph Hearst.
His paper, The New York World, exposed American fraudulence and corruption amidst the building of the Panama Canal. As a result, he was indicted for libeling famed fat cat banker J.P. Morgan, as well as President Theodore Roosevelt himself.
Though Pulitzer himself was slow to learn English as an immigrant in history, the Pulitzer Prize is now the reigning standard for excellence in American journalism and the written word.
The first woman to serve as US Secretary of State, Madeline Albright was an immigrant in history born in Prague, the daughter of a Czech diplomat. Her family arrived in America in 1948 after living in the UK.
Albright got her PhD from Columbia, and President Bill Clinton appointed her to be U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. When she became Secretary of State in 1997, also under the Clinton administration, she became the highest ranking woman in the history of US politics.
The Secretary of State is usually 4th in line as Presidential successor, in the event of an incapacitation, death, resignation or removal from office of a sitting president. Because she was among the ranks of immigrants in history, however, she was not eligible as a successor.
Nevertheless, Albright has had an influential and complex career. She continues to chart the course of the world by investing with the likes of George Soros, a peer amongst influential immigrants in history, and the Rothschild family.
Soros is one of the most successful investors and immigrants in history, and one of the richest people in the world. He was born in Budapest and survived the Nazi occupation of Hungary. Forbes recently listed him as the 19th richest person on Earth, and the single wealthiest hedge fund manager.
He received his education in the UK before coming to America and becoming both a citizen, and because of his philanthropy and investments, one of the most important immigrants in history.
In 1940, the year the Einstein became a citizen, English film director Alfred Hitchcock made his first American movie, Rebecca. In 1955, at the height of his directorial powers, Hitchcock himself became a US citizen. That year he directed To Catch a Thief, starring another important English immigrant in history, Cary Grant.
The Hollywood film industry is one of America’s most immense contributions to global culture, and few directors have been as influential as the ‘master of macabre.’ Filmmakers continue to quote him, study him, and reference his work in homage to the storyteller’s impeccable timing and emotional control.
Legendary folk songstress Joni Mitchell was born in Alberta, Canada. She moved to the US to tour in her 20s, and went on to become one of the most influential musical immigrants in history.
She helped launch the late 60s and 70s folk revival, which in turn would inspire the singer/songwriter revival of the early 2000s. Her voice continues to echo throughout pop music today.
Mitchell’s seminal 1971 album Blue defined the sound of a generation. NPR recently hailed it as number one on their list of the 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women. It has received similar acknowledgments from publications like Rolling Stone. A fellow Canadian-American who joins her in her dual citizenship is country/folk singer Neil Young.
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This Austrian born body builder became a movie star, and went on to become the Governor of California. After winning Mr. Universe, as well as Mr. Olympia (seven times), Schwarzenegger got his start in Hollywood by taking roles with few spoken lines.
Producers thought audiences wouldn’t respond well to this thick accent. Little did they know, that Austrian accent would become synonymous with the tough-guy roughnecks of maximalist 80s action films.
As a Republican politician, Schwarzenegger legislated for limits on greenhouse gas emissions and served over two full terms as governor.
He has also had a successful career in business, including owning a restaurant in Santa Monica. With his rags-to-riches American dream story, Schwarzenegger is one of the most immediately recognizable faces of successful immigrants in history.
Additional Facts About Immigrants in History
America doesn’t just absorb migrants, however. We produce them, too. In 2015, there were over 3 million American immigrants living in other countries. The most popular destination for American immigrants in history is (you guessed it!) our neighbor to the south, Mexico.
And it may come as a surprise that even with all of our immigrants in history, we are not the world’s only--or even most successful--melting pot. For that we must credit our grandfather country, the United Kingdom.
The UK has the most diverse immigrant community in the world. And the highest percentage of foreign born residents? That award goes to the United Arab Emirates, at 84 percent of the population having been born abroad.
The Importance of Language in Immigration
In America, we usually associate the term ‘immigration’ or with Mexico and Latin America, from whence most of our immigrants in history come. But the majority of global immigrants in history actually come from France.
Wealthy or Caucasian migrants from first world countries (like France or the US) are usually called ‘expats,’ while dark skinned migrants, even doctors, lawyers and other professionals, are often called ‘immigrants.’
Why is this? There’s no real reason. Because an expat is technically no different than an immigrant, some critics call this the language of racist class division.
The ability of foreigners to come to the US as immigrants is tumultuous and uncertain. The Trump administration threatens people’s freedom to immigrate, despite the fact that President Trump himself is the grandson of German immigrants.
So now it’s more important than ever to remember the tremendous volume of thought, art, policy and culture that immigrants in history have contributed to our nation. And to remember that, with the exception of indigenous Americans, we are all visitors here.